The number of people in England who are obese has almost doubled over the past 20 years to 13 million, which is just under 30% of the population.
Health experts said the dramatic rise in the number of dangerously overweight people was a damning indictment of the government’s failure to tackle the obesity crisis.
While about 6.96 million people aged 16 and above in England were obese in 1997, that had soared to just over 13 million by 2018, according to analysis by the charity Diabetes UK.
Over the same period the proportion of people over 16 who had a body mass index (BMI) of at least 30 – the definition of obesity – also increased sharply from 18% to 29%.
The surge in obesity is adding to the strain on the NHS because it is leading to more patients needing care for related conditions such as cancers, heart attacks and strokes, and also knee replacements.
“The rise in obesity in England is alarming, and shines a harsh and necessary light on the need for urgent, decisive, action from government and industry to make our society healthier,” said Chris Askew, Diabetes UK’s chief executive.
The Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of health and medical groups, said the increased prevalence of foods high in fat, salt or sugar was an important factor.
“In the last 20 years our food environment has become increasingly flooded with calorific and sugary processed food and we are now paying the price with our health,” said Caroline Cerny, the OHA’s alliance lead.
The number of people who are obese topped 10 million for the first time in 2008. Since then it has risen again to the 13 million seen in 2017, according to Diabetes UK’s calculations.
The charity arrived at the figures by applying statistics from the annual Health Survey for England showing the percentage of the population who are obese, to Office for National Statistics data for the size of England’s population every year since 1997.
“People want to make healthier choices. But without bold measures in place to support this on a societal level, individuals are left confused, stigmatised and unsupported,” added Askew. “It’s easy to blame individuals, but we need to look at the environment we all exist within to understand how we’ve reached this point. And we need bold leadership from the very top to turn the tide on the obesity and type 2 diabetes crises.”
Rachel Batterham, the Royal College of Physicians’ special adviser on obesity, said: “This report offers a truly damning picture of the state of our nation’s health. Obesity not only drastically diminishes the quality of people’s lives, often leading to devastating diseases such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers and causing people to die prematurely. It is a complex, chronic, progressive disease driven by factors such as genetics, environment, and health inequalities.
“It is governments, not individuals, which can have an impact on the food environment through regulation and taxation, and by controlling availability and affordability.”
Being obese represents 80% to 85% of a person’s chances of developing type 2 diabetes, according to Diabetes UK.
The spread of obesity has been accompanied by a sharp rise in the number of people diagnosed with diabetes. There are thought to be 3.7 million diabetics in England, though of those 850,000 remain unaware that they have it, the charity said.
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, has warned that “obesity is the new smoking” and has called for bolder action to reduce sugar intake and promote healthier diets.